Virtual APEC summit frustrates New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern has been forced to run the APEC talks virtually, from an office block in Wellington.
Jacinda Ardern has been forced to run the APEC talks virtually, from an office block in Wellington.

But for COVID-19, Auckland would this week have been the unlikely venue of the first in-person meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping as leaders of the United States and China.

Instead, the pandemic has forced New Zealand to host this year's APEC talks virtually, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to running the meeting from a refitted Wellington office building.

In the early hours of Saturday morning (AEDT), Ms Ardern will chair the leaders' summit, with presidents Biden and Xi, as well as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, among the 21 invited heads of government.

"Our ability to put New Zealand on the world stage isn't quite what it would have been, had we had an in-person event," Ms Ardern said. "But it's also added some benefits."

The 41-year-old nominated an additional virtual leaders' meeting this year - a first for APEC, held in July - focused on the movement of goods as the primary benefit.

"We have been able to canvass and implement changes to the way that goods particularly, and even vaccinations, move around our part of the world, and that's been of material benefit for APEC economies," she said.

However, New Zealand will miss out on valuable branding opportunities from the visit of world leaders, as well as the economic boost of thousands of officials visiting through the year, and potential investment.

"APEC is a very good chance to promote your country as a brand," Murat Ungor of the University of Otago said.

"We will miss new business opportunities, new investment opportunities, not being able to target our business to groups coming from all over Asia and further.

"We would have expected much more foreign direct investment from APEC."

Even without COVID-19, hosting APEC posed a mighty challenge to New Zealand, the third-smallest economy of the 21 nations.

An assessment of NZ's infrastructure prior to winning hosting rights suggested a new facility was needed to stage the event.

But the convention centre being built in the Auckland CBD for that very purpose was struck by a major fire during construction in October 2019.

The repair job continues to this day, with a bill in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The timing of APEC has also proved problematic.

This week's meetings clash with the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, forcing Ms Ardern to send a minister to Scotland in her place, despite climate change being one of her signature issues.

While there has been much turmoil to New Zealand's hosting of the summit, one thing remains constant.

As is tradition with the Australia-initiated forum, the leaders will pose for a 'family photo' during their Zoom call on Saturday clad in 'silly shirts' chosen by the host country.

"This garment is an important way New Zealand can create a shared experience to join APEC leaders," APEC NZ deputy secretary Andrea Smith said.

Australian Associated Press